Messages in the music

Being a person in the world, I have noticed, of late, that it isn’t going well. The world, that is. Drought, ice melting, reefs dying, war, famine, poverty, burning this, flooding that, rampant terrible disease things, pillaging hordes of other things, like politicians and media barons, kids being shelled, torture, censorship, kidnapping, rape memes, repression, murder, reporters being jailed for describing what’s happening. Elephants crying, a baby wailing. Stray dog howling. The screech of brakes and lamp lights blinking – seems my train of thought morphed into:

 

Seems there’s a song for every feeling.

Anyway, it’s a wonder the earth is still here at all.

Some days. It. Is. All. Too. Much.

So how or why do I continue to do what I do? Isn’t pointless in the face of so much horror? Doesn’t amount to a hill of beans, this tinkering with words to tell stories and this blog?

Well yes. But. That’s what humans do. In the face of horror they keep at whatever gives life meaning. Thus, I have certain skills. They won’t cure cancer or calculate Pi. But, if I can keep doing what I’m reasonably good at, perhaps this doing demonstrates to someone, anyone, that people can do what they are good at, and find some satisfaction in it. This is important, because to some, even this seems impossible and there are precious few people in the world with the opportunity to find what they are good at, and attempt to practice it.

Also, while many people think the world is full of suffering and woe and make it woeful and full of suffering for everyone else, I don’t want to be that kind of person.

But no matter. This is what I have and I’ll keep sponsoring Freedom the former bile farm Moon Bear here, arguing with and un-friending small-minded ignorant racists on social media there.

It’s an up hill battle some days.

But I will keep writing. Because writing is subversive. And if I’m anything I’m a contrarian: I couldn’t read, now I’m a writer. It demonstrates in the best way I know how that I am working on who I want to be and I am free to do so. And if I can maybe we all can.

So stuff Big Brother. I’m lucky. I can protest, argue with racists and sexists, sign petitions, vote and express opinions. If only we could all, (to misquote MC Hammer) much like the Addams family, write what we wanna write, do what we wanna do, say what we wanna say, live how we wanna live, play how we wanna play and most of all….dance how we wanna dance.

We can, too, look forward to the good things. Like I don’t know, the next Australian federal election or new episodes of Doctor Who.

But importantly, as the Mod Father says in another song, we should stop apologising for the things we’ve never done, cause time is short and life is cruel. But it’s up to us to change

And we can.

 

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Some thoughts on American Gods: a review

Since completing my studies I’ve got a lil bit more time for recreational reading. Thus, I’ve made a start on my precarious pile of unread novels. It’s largish as there are several handy places to pick up second-hand books near where I live. A while back I started on Cloud Atlas but couldn’t get into it. Couldn’t see where it was going. Also the book had a page missing so it’s gone bye-bye. After that I made a start on The Angel’s Game by Carlos Ruiz Zafón – because I really liked The Shadow of the Wind - man that book was intensity in ten cities. This one I will go back to, but not quite yet. No, from my pile of stuff I selected Neil Gaiman’s American Gods.

It was good. I liked it, yet I don’t love it. I liked the conceit (which was Douglas Adams’ idea down to the Norse gods), even if the main character Shadow was a bit stupid. He really did feel like an empty vessel – a thing that has events happen to it and around it, except every now and then his passing remarks turned out to be Important Plot Indicators. Some were subtle, but other plot indicators were a bit twee. Loved that it featured pasties. Made me want a good Cornish pasty and I think (or guess really) that he captured Middle America reasonably well – that and the cold. I liked the intermission type chapters – they seemed more concrete. It felt a tiny bit like China Mieville’s Perdido Street Station, not thematically so very much, except in terms of quests and sacrifices, and not really with the language, but just now and again there was an echo of something.

American Gods

American Gods

But what was with all the peeing? Seriously, the amount of times the story had to describe Shadow or anyone else peeing was beyond all need. I geddit, people need to pee, but unless it’s of epic import to the plot fewer instances would’ve sufficed. Really. I’m not a prude, it’s just elaborate descriptions of toileting do not a novel make. What gives Neil, bladder infection? Freudian something or was it raining a lot that year?

Anyway aside from what seemed to be an intense focus on waterworks it’s essentially a coming of age tragic love triangle Harlequin romance gone bad redemption travel crime who dunnit flim flam finding my family and place in the world supernatural saga.

The bit I loved most was Sam’s ‘what I believe speech’. But even more interesting is contemplating the kind of gods that would inhabit America now because the ones he described were a bit, well, lame. Actually, they were the embodiment of popular stereotypes, rather than gods. So these days, next to Media there would be a less well polished but more biting and multi-voiced Social Media. There would be the modern gods of Anonymous, Gluten Intolerance, Occupy Movement, YouTube, Truthers, Paleo Diets, The Tea Party, Hipsters, Anti-Vaxers, Podcasting, Sexting, Hashtag and Quinoa…maybe. I reckon an Anonymous God would look the part because of the ready made image.

The novel’s ‘tech god’ is not great. And others more qualified than I have pointed to the problematic statements made by certain characters about Native American spirituality and other depictions of the gods.

I read his preferred version, which is apparently longer and the story is redolent of its time set as it is, in a mature America at the start of a new century. I think if it was written now it would have a different feel, but I got a sense of a rotten core in the US – all those abandoned towns, factories, farms and homes - that does seem topical given the GFC. So too was the taint of a deeper rottenness in those places that seem to be flourishing.

It’s an American version of Long Dark Tea Time of the Soul, but strangely felt just as dated – like it was in the 1980s. Yet, it’s more like an American Heart of Darkness meets The Great Gatsby if Gatsby was an ex-con instead of an ex-soldier, who worked for a sneaky and corrupt old god, rather than a bootlegger. All this set in an America where Gatsby was in love with cheater Laura as golf cheater Jordan as the forces behind and above and below are made accessible, and just a lil bit shabby and uncanny.

Anyway, it’s being made into a TV series now and there will be plenty of issues to consider before it returns to everyone’s consciousness so I’m definitely glad I’ve read it before seeing it.

Other books on the magical pile to read (and therefore admit that I have not yet read):

  • The Orchard – Drusilla Modjeska
  • Indigo – Marina Warner
  • One Hundred Years of Solitude – Gabriel Garcia Marquez
  • Love in the Time of Cholera - Gabriel Garcia Marquez
  • The Pale King – David Foster Wallace
  • The Sea, The Sea – Iris Murdoch
  • Being Dead – Jim Crace
  • Iron Council – China Mieville
  • The Carpet Wars – Christopher Kremmer
  • Remembrance of Things Past – Marcel Proust (sigh – big project).
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On Being a Writer and a Reader

Been working on the thesis and it’s nearing completion. I am both hopeful of and dreading the outcome.

What it is forcing me to be is to be a writer and a reader.

Mostly you’ll say this is easy, writers and readers share things in common, like language, and perhaps a love of and ability to speculate about the world created: look up ‘fandom,’ ‘OTP’ and  ‘ship’ anywhere on Tumblr, Reddit or Pintrest (for starters) if you don’t believe me.

However, the experience of creating a world and the experience of reading it are different. As a writer there are decisions to make, ideas that come and go, directions to take, challenges to overcome, spelling to fix, names to be selected, discarded and selected again, voice to be adjusted and tone and perspective to get right. There are pleasures: in resolving a transition, in making dialogue sound right, or taking something tiny and making it a crucial plot point. All these things are satisfying. Then there is the relief of getting the thing finished (or as finished as it can be). These trials and experiences are unique to the creator, who is mostly trying to figure this out alone.

The frustrations are numerous: failing to translate the imagination into the written word, having no one understand what you are doing, even if others have read a draft or got bored at you complaining about how a character doesn’t work. Having the time to dedicate to it, others calling you lazy when you’re dreaming about how to fix that problematic bit. And the drafting and drafting and still finding mistakes and logic flaws. The many lost ideas, or finding ideas only to realise they are really dumb or obvious. Then there’s being distracted by the ENTIRE WORLD, which seems dedicated to the prevention of writing.

After those problems, come all the questions: will anyone read it, will anyone read it and like it, will anyone read it, like and pay for it? Was it worth it? Was it worth it even it’s never published because I learned something? What the hell did I learn? Why did I bother?

As a reader, normally the stories I read allow me to immerse myself in a world. I’m not concerned about the things the writer worries about, I’m interested in the characters and being immersed in a world and story. But I have to read this world I’ve created in my head like a critic would. Be theoretical and objective. Because exegesis.

If you’re not a writer, you may not be aware, like I wasn’t really, that the author of your favourite book didn’t have the same experience or to share the same wonder that you did as a reader. They can’t. They may love their story and the world they created, but they see the work they put in, the mistakes uncorrected, the tears and the flaws. And if it’s traditionally published what they may see is a title they didn’t pick and the cover they had little say in.

In the end, your vision and understanding of the book and their vision and understanding for the story they wanted to tell and got as close as they could to telling, are different. This is ok. No one is right (or write) or wrong. It’s inter-textuality – everything you bring to the book you read informs the impression you have. Just as a lot of what I am is infused in the story. It means that every story is different, even when we read the same thing.

It’s kinda why I don’t often seek out author opinions about their own books. Sometimes they’re interesting, but I don’t need them. What I appreciate are their thoughts on writing craft, or sometimes on current affairs, or publishing. I can interpret the book for myself. And now I’m asking of myself what I don’t ask of others – my interpretation of this story.

This is the weird thing about a creative writing thesis. Not so much the story but the essay, which is the defence of the creative piece that is a response to a question. I have to think about all the choices I made as a writer and justify them, while recognising there are things I can’t see. All this while engaging in theory and philosophy and comparison. It’s odd being creator and my own critic.

It’s deliberate too, what I choose to discuss in the exegesis and what I skate around. Or at least it is mostly deliberate and then it gets psychological. Excavate the story, excavate me too maybe? Why can’t the story be all that needs to be said about itself? It’s never enough is it? It’s why there are art critics and author book tours and literature tutorials. We read we discuss, we dissect, we delineate, we distil. I get distracted.

No matter how ‘innovative’ (shudder) the story is, the exegesis is formulaic. It follows a pattern and must fulfil certain criteria. So no matter how much I want to put the exegesis in the story and the story in the exegesis, it’s not really the done thing.

The academy considers creating and critiquing separate. And they do come from different places and inform each other. But I want to throw clay at the canvas and generally mix it up more. I suppose I’ve tried to be all Philosophically Deleuzean about it – added in the layers in the story. But the success is not judged by me.

I guess we’ll see. C’est la vie.

This Being Two French Philosophers

This Being Two French Philosophers

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Answering borrowed questions (about writing)

I’m knee-deep in thesis-land at the moment, which explains fewer posts of late. However I had some time for this. 

The other day I was inspired by Anna Spargo-Ryan’s blog and her Q and A about writing. She has a way with words. But the questions she answered got me thinking. So it meant I had to completely borrow (borrowing is a tribute-y thing) the same questions she answered. They’re not the questions I would ask me, which is why I thought it was worthwhile trying to answer them in my own way…thanks Anna:)

 

WHAT AM I WRITING?

After about 10 years of writing short stories and other stuff now is season of my novella. It’s the creative part of a creative writing thesis I started last year, but I have been thinking about for a while. It’s about a person discovering upon her father’s death that her grandmother was an archaeologist who travelled the world and then settled down to pursue a monomania. So it’s about digging up the past, and death, secrets, history and landscape. All the usual suspects.

HOW DOES MY WORK DIFFER FROM OTHERS IN ITS GENRE?

It differs because I’m writing it! This novella is literary-historical fiction, but not too post-modern. Mainly I hope the subject matter for this project is a bit ‘little, yellow, different’, to quote um, Wayne’s World. But not so different that I alienate readers. There is a balance when telling a story about a historical person few people have heard of. This aint Wolf Hall, so I need to introduce the character, but not make the story so detail-heavy the plot is bogged down by stuff the reader doesn’t need to know, just because I did the research. And unlike Hilary Mantel I have a strict word limit so scene-setting must be to the point.

Any-who, beyond that I believe the main way every writer distinguishes themselves is through voice. Language is like a palette for a visual artist. There are particular colours and patterns I am drawn to, and ideas I want to explore. Except words are the colours and phrases and themes are the patterns. I’m pretty excited about my particular idea, because it was in part inspired by two real people who were ignored for a long time until recently, so I think it’s on the verge of a zeitgeist (I said zeitgeist, sorry, I really didn’t mean it). As far as I know few people have set novels/stories where mine is set so there is that.

WHY DO I WRITE WHAT I DO?

I thought I could maybe write. So I did a TAFE course that included short story writing. Turns out I love short story writing, which I should have remembered since I loved writing them since I was in grade four, when I wrote my first story. Anyway…as everyone says writing short stories doesn’t pay bills but they mostly fit my ability to concentrate, my available time and my need for a sense of accomplishment at actually finishing something. So many times I’ve started novels and just got bogged down or distracted. Getting a story done is a confidence booster, getting a story published even more so. However, it doesn’t mean I’m a prolific writer – some short stories take a while to find their shape and longer again to find publication. As for themes I’m interested in the same things I’ve always been interested in – what if questions, history, mythology, death, hidden things, landscape, language, arcane stuff, building up a scene, but plots and events or triggers percolate for ages. I listen to people, go to the museum, read, dabble in social media, watch the news and out of all that and my own personal experiences something bubbles up. Often it changes. The novella I’m writing has been planned for years, but it’s turning out quite differently to how I imagined. One character who wasn’t really meant to be in the story at all has taken over and the character who was going to be the main focus is more of a background figure. I also raided a novel I started for the much of the setting because it needed a home and I needed a familiar landscape to ground it. Once I had that place I could riff on contrasts and similarities with other locations the story is set.  

No, my novella is not about a crusading medieval cat-knight.

No, my novella is not about a crusading medieval cat-knight. But don’t tempt me.

HOW DOES MY WRITING PROCESS WORK?

Not convinced it does really work. But it goes something like: have idea or nice phrase. Write it down. Email it to myself. Or scribble it in my notebook.  Sometime I will develop a paragraph or two when I’m at the noodle place waiting for dinner, or during a break at work. I write in the afternoons and evenings as I get home from work before the rush hour. If I am planning a story I throw everything I can at the page and while that sorts itself out, read for background – if it’s a tiny story I may only read a reference book or check online. This novella is different though because it is longer and because it is part of a thesis. So it’s a story in itself but also a response to some research questions I had. I haven’t written a story in this way before. As part of a thesis there is the exegesis where I defend what I’ve done, it has been a lot of reading – everything from books of letters by explorers to translations of ancient poetry.

Mostly I’m at the laptop in the study at home. I’ll write, work with it, write some more, go away, think about it, edit and write some more. Drafting is constant. For this story I set up a structure first and divided up all the writing into little chapters and then decided who said what and when and where. This planning is a bit of a departure, usually I don’t always know in advance what will happen, but in this case the last little chapterlet was the second thing I wrote after the introduction, which is now not the introduction. It both helps and hinders that since I’m referencing some real stuff as plot markers. Currently I’m working through my supervisor’s edits and questions, which have been very helpful, as have the deadlines because they keep the momentum up. 

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Black Swan of Trespass

The robber of dead men’s dreams

There is a famous Australian literary hoax, called the Ern Malley affair. Two poets invented the Melbourne poet, you guessed it, Ern Malley to dupe literary journal editor Max Harris. It was all about modernism. This is some of Ern’s work, from Durer: Innsbruck, 1495:

I had often cowled in the slumbrous heavy air,
Closed my inanimate lids to find it real,
As I knew it would be, the colourful spires
And painted roofs, the high snows glimpsed at the back,
All reversed in the quiet reflecting waters –
Not knowing then that Durer perceived it too.
Now I find that once more I have shrunk
To an interloper, robber of dead men’s dream,
I had read in books that art is not easy
But no one warned that the mind repeats
In its ignorance the vision of others. I am still
The black swan of trespass on alien waters.

Art is not easy

And you know, it’s pretty good.  You can’t fake poetry. Sure you can fake an identity as McAuley and the other one did, but their combined talent. No. Although no one much remembers their other stuff do they?

The issue of Angry Penguins that resulted in all the fuss

The issue of Angry Penguins that resulted in all the fuss

But all this got me to thinking about all the angst and anger this hoax caused.  And to thinking about trust, cynicism and pretension and posturing. Do we trust any more?

Of late, although where of I know not, sincerity has become uncool. It’s like everyone feels like they’ve been duped once too often by a couple of poets. Now angry cynics online haunt street corners sneering. But they’re sneering at everything indiscriminately: from a kid’s letter to the CSIRO, to mining companies, governments, planes, vaccinations, viral photos of parents doing parenting things, to efforts to stop whaling or shark culls. Nothing is free from attack and many a thing is attacked for the perception that it comes from the political Left or Right. 

It wasn’t always like this was it? Once upon a time poetry was published in good faith that the poet existed. But now?

The point of education is to learn how to think, how to assess evidence, and how to debate points of view. At university it’s not called defending a thesis for nothing. But somehow, the academic effort to assess evidence has been translated in the wider society to a willingness to suspend belief in everything. The first classes I enrolled in taught me logic, and how to make arguments, and see the flaws in the arguments of others. Some take this as mistrust in the motives and truthfulness of everything.

That’s not the case.

I’m not blind to the fact there are liars and con artists in the world. The harder people work to sell me something the more I question the motivation. But I question. Questions are harder than jeering, even when an unexamined life is not worth living, because I wait for an answer. Jeerers don’t care about answers.

The mind repeats

At some point in the last 20 years all information became misinformation. Advice is a conspiracy to get you to spend money or keep you sick or be signed up. Conspiracies are mostly psychological tools of distraction, like how I imagine people worry about chem trails so as to not have to consider giving up a car. Feeling powerless and hard done by, by massive corporations and/or governments excuses you from examining how your own habits may contribute to the smog of the world doesn’t it?

In the end if you see that the poetry is good, enjoy it for the good poetry it is. Maybe it doesn’t matter who the author was or what the motivation for it was. Similarly if you analyse something and see the lie in it, call it out, but measure the hurt you may cause first.

First, do no harm, the doctors once said.

Shrunk to an interloper

I don’t know. Maybe we’re all lost souls crying out in our own personal noche oscuras, railing at things we don’t understand, can’t influence, or don’t exist because it is easier than to accept some kind of individual responsibility for things we might be able to change a little bit. We wouldn’t want to do something different would we, like appreciate a different kind of poetry? Imagine if everyone changes a little bit?

The vision of others

Finally, I try to remember that offence is always personal and mostly meaningless in the wider scheme of things. It might be a famous literary hoax but I can’t feel the offence Max Harris felt as I read the poems, rather I feel for Harris. But me expressing offence at something does little except stoke the fire of my own outraged ego. And I say this knowing next time I’m outraged by some event or political shenanigans.

Yet I say:

Be the poem, not the cynical poets of the world.

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Lessons from ten-ish years of short story writing

I’ve been writing a while now and studied courses and read a few ‘how to’ books. They’re all helpful in their way. My advice is take advice and don’t take advice. Not everything I’ve been told works for me and I’m ok with that. So if some of this is too obvious you can ignore it, and if none of this works for you, I’m ok with that too, ok?

  • Write. 
  • Read short stories. Read different genres and from authors and places and times you’ve never heard of. I recommend Jorge Luis Borges, John Holton, Arthur Conan Doyle, Carmel Bird, Ambrose Bierce, Tim Winton, DH Lawrence and Flannery O’Connor among a gazillion others.
  • The shorter the worker the keener the focus is on how it is written. So like never before spelling, grammar and punctuation matter. There could have as little as 10 words or as many as 4000 to grab onto and hold someone’s attention, and mistakes are distracting.
  • Make the story fit the size. Don’t have a cast of thousands, or a story that crosses continents or many time periods when there are only 500 words to do it in, it’s too difficult and rarely convincing. A short story is a moment, a special slice of something, or an episode in the life of, or an event, yet always complete in itself.
  • Anecdotes are not stories. Real life rarely makes it as story material, because life is just one damned thing after another. A story should have some kind of start, end and finish, with a nice arc or revelation to give it meaning or value, or  spark.
  • Work on the ending. The ‘it was all a dream’ ending should be banished to the sixth circle of Dante’s inferno, unless you make it freaking A M A Z I N G.
  • Almost always use said or says rather than stuff like he ‘exclaimed proudly’ or she ‘enunciated snidely’ – we should understand tone and attitude from the context and the actual words said, because there should be no wasted words in a short story.
  • Thusly, my next bit of advice: give spoken words context:

‘You’re always so right,’ said Evie, before slamming the door in his face. Brian heard her turn the key in the lock and something inside him turned. He pounded the door. ‘No lock’ll stop me, Evie.’

Not my best effort but the attitude and emotions of Evie and Brian are conveyed by their actions rather than me interpreting how their words are said.

  • Write how people talk. But not too much if there are accents to convey. Provide a taste of the accent, don’t overwhelm.
  • Structure is everything. It affects tone, pacing, how the piece looks on the page and how people will read it.
  • Look at sentence construction. Look at the start of each paragraph and if the first word is the same for each change some.
  • Look at point of view and be prepared to change it. Is it first person or third? Should it be from Brian or Evie’s perspective?
  • Break up long sentences if you have a heap of them, or insert a long sentence in if your writing is always punchy.
  • If a phrase or word is repeated make it meaningful. People see meaning in repetitions because they are like word symbols to them and people are always clueing for looks, as Dr Watson once said. If they’re not meaningful, cut them the hell out, as they will distract from what you intend to convey.
Sherlock Holmes: clue-ing for looks like all attentive readers do.

Sherlock Holmes: clueing for looks like all attentive readers do.

  • Be prepared to break rules.
  • Be prepared to defend your artistic decisions to editors; however, recognise when they are right. Editors are not killing your baby but saving it. For your story to thrive, you must let it go. Really, step away and let people read it and have opinions about it.
  • Don’t trust the opinions of the people who are obliged to love everything you do.
  • Nothing is original except you. Work on your voice, rather than your ideas. If you don’t know what voice is in writing then you’re probably still developing yours. And that’s ok.
  • Expect that not everyone will love what you write . Expect that you won’t either if  you go back to something written a while ago. The writing hasn’t changed, you have.
  • Contests are all well and good, but are difficult to win and sometimes costly to enter. Try sending a story to a journal and getting a response from an editor.
  • Rejections are not about you. Sometimes they are not about your work. If they are about your work, edit it. Or send it elsewhere. Maybe the publication was wrong for your story or maybe your story isn’t done yet.
  • Write, finish and walk away. Come back to your story in a week or two, or a month. Read it with fresh eyes. Then edit.
  • I don’t do one or two drafts. As I write I’m in continual draft mode because stories, plots, characters and themes are all fluid until it is published. That is when drafting stops…and sometimes not even then:)
  • Keep a database of titles, submissions, acceptances, costs, dates, etc. I use Sonar 3, a free program.
  • Most publications will not take submissions that  have been self published. Beware vanity publishers.
  • Do have a website, or a social media presence. Don’t make it all about selling or promoting your stories. Social media is great for conversations, while you constantly touting stuff is, basically, boring.
  • Do celebrate your publications or milestones. Don’t be shy. 
  • Enjoy writing short stories as an end in themselves. They don’t have to be mini training wheels for potential novels. Nobody is forcing you to be a novelist. Especially what with the return of the novella and digital media looking for short form stuff to fill online whatsits.
  • Finally, if you’re novelist, that’s cool. For the longest time I was intimidated by long form story telling. I’m having a bit of a crack now, but good on you. But don’t think just cos you can pump out 100,000 words that a short story is a cake walk. Short stories are concentrated and need a deft yet delicate touch to contain their potential for power and also unwieldiness.

Here endeth the lesson.

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Going Back to Baker Street

‘Ere 221B Dragons and Those Who May Spoil Them…mmmkay? 

Reflexivity

When I write something there is me writing it #ObviousStatementisObvious. Yet if there is any art to writing, it is about removing the (obvious) evidence of me. But there is another art, or perhaps a balance, to leaving such evidence in the writing. Sometimes it’s to satisfy reader/viewer expectation, and beyond that there are all sorts of motivations for doing so, some are apparent to the writer and others would be sub or supra-conscious.

Sometimes it’s more like a conversation between writer and reader/viewer. The ‘I know you’re looking’ moments, or the ‘I have to let you know that I know you know’ something something here moments. Like when Fury explains the purpose of Coulson’s death in The Avengers. It was like the film writer was saying look everyone, writing with no hands, here is the Call To Action for the Heroes, just like the writing book says. Or when Sherlock makes observations about ‘geeks being worth it if you put the work in because they are  so grateful’ (I may have paraphrased slightly here). That’s not just Sherlock observing, but the authors being cruel about a particular group but also one may posit, about themselves. I think that’s the way of writing. The meanest things are the truth, because the really, really vilest you can be is about yourself. And nobody, not even Sherlock, knows you like yourself. Go Pysch 1o1 on that if you like. 

Themes – Camera Obscura

My writing tends towards what interests me and what captures my attention. In other words what goes into this brain and maybe stays there for a bit, may at some point come out in the writing. This doesn’t make me special because every writer, artist, creative type person is like that.

Writing is also infected by the world we live in, or observe on the news, or…read in the papers. The Sherlock series has used the media, or portrayed the media, but latest series it is about media: media reach and ownership, anonymity, secrets and how they are protected and used, how the media influences government and vice versa.  If you live in the UK or are interested in the media at all you’d need to work pretty hard to avoid such topics. And they’re still with  us.

The obvious clue is the newspaper owning foreigner portrayed as an evil genius, Charles Augustus Magnussen, the CAM who sent a lovely, but in retrospect terrifying, telegram to Mary at the wedding. It’s not overly meta to draw conclusions about who in the media (familiar to anyone in the UK, US or Australia) Magnussen is operating most like. 

Magnussen: Proof? I don’t need proof. I’m in news you moron. I just have to print it. 

But that’s too easy for these writers, because it’s not just a commentary on the evils of unregulated media, or the NSA. Why? Because the Evil Genius Media Baron is the mirror of Sherlock, what with mind palaces and using people. If Sherlock was really a psychopath Magnussen is what he would become if he cared about money, power and making people pay. Yet Sherlock is a detective, rather than a pirate Mycroft mentioned. (Side note interesting relationship between the media and the word piracy nowadays huh).

Sherlock remains a blunt instrument, and again, one of sacrifice, as he sees the one way out for Mary and Watson. This time to keep his friends safe he doesn’t die, or pretend to die, but his Evil Genius Twin needs to. It means if Sherlock ever really turns BAD he too will need to be put down because Magnussen is Sherlock’s Shadow, even more than Moriarty. Moriarty is something like the representation of Sherlock’s fear of the results of boredom + drugs. Through suffering (via Mary) and by the destruction of his Shadow, Sherlock’s issues, at least some of them, like Red Beard, are addressed. We learn about how he became how he is.

All this shadowing and mirroring is reflected (geddit) in the direction. The camera is worth paying attention to, with all the shots through glass, or framed through windows or doors (even as characters are being framed in the plot). There are different angles, close-ups, the use of computers as cameras, or surveillance view angles, ultra clear views or drunken and fuzzy views that heighten the notion of always being observed and of the lack of privacy. Again this is the CAM(era) or rather Magnussen in action. We therefore shouldn’t be surprised about Magnussen’s vault. It is made of light, but is morally ‘dark’. (If white = good and black = bad). His vault is the camera obscura from where everything in his papers is projected and protected.

The direction too has me thinking Sherlock as Hamlet – a flawed hero ready to die or kill for a cause while saving his best friend and always demanding to see proof. But especially thematically and especially the David Tenant version with all the security cameras. In these episodes and that version of the play, Hamlet,  like Sherlock, is ‘th’ observed of all observers, quite, quite down’. Yes, quite down due to the machinations of the state and a corrupt media.

Craft

So I can see the not only what the writers want me to see of their reflexivity, but also the craft in it. I can see how the end of series three mirrors the end of series two. Where there was Sherlock’s physical fall after Moriarty shoots himself in the head, here is his ‘moral’ fall after, well after what happens with someone else shot in the head, which  again results in a kind of exile from his friends…second verse just like the first.

Indeed the third series ends in the same way as the first series, with Sherlock in the red spot lights of guns, next to Watson, while everything is about to go Moriarty. It also mirrors the end of the first episode – with a shooting to save someone – only with the Sherlock and Watson’s roles reversed and the ‘debt’ paid. This is what makes it beautiful writing, and not at all like life. This is escapism for the attentive viewer or detective fiction as High Art.

People who dismiss such writing have different expectations of TV. They may want (I’m guessing) the kind of TV that just presents stuff happening. ‘Reality’ TV that caters to no expectations. It is entertainment for people who concentrate all day and just need to not in the evening. It is a drug of the masses, and for most of us most of the time it works. I don’t mind some of it myself. I’m not immune to the emotional dramas and plot twists of a good home renovation program. No, what are you thinking putting the glass side table with that rug, can’t you see it doesn’t work next to the dormer window?

It pays to pay attention

However, the TV I most appreciate is the kind where it draws me in, rather than anaesthetises. It’s TV made to be concentrated on, that dares the viewer to want to think like a Sherlock, or emote like one hell of a Martin Freeman as Watson (just phenomenal – Freeman should win awards). It’s a puzzle to solve and the reflexivity invites viewers to second guess not only the characters, but also the writers, who know this is what happens. The game, indeed, is on. Or afoot.

Bit blunt, but a kernel of truthiness.

Bit blunt. But the real point is that these programs and their ilk are meant for a different kind of viewer. It’s not about smart/dumb but attentive/non-attentive.

Case in point. Much of the focus is (rightly) on Sherlock. Yet I like how Watson notices things. Sherlock notices things and it drives the plot and solves the crime. Watson notices things and it’s about feelings. As soon as he sees his chair back in his spot he knows, and this knowledge is confirmed with the perfume. He notices the things that breaks people’s hearts, like he knew Sherlock was breaking Molly’s heart as he deduced her Christmas gift. Sherlock, with no automatic sensitivity, can’t see the human cost of where the deductions lead him, not until it is too late. Too late for Molly, too late for Moriarty and The Woman, and too late for Media Mogul as Super-villian. Our pay off is that we can see the pain Sherlock causes, while watching Watson feel the pain first.

Psych

Mycroft seems to be a more naturally without empathy. Sherlock’s psychology, if  you will, seems more a creation of Mycroft’s bullying, artistic sensibility, and sensitivity as a result of exposure to trauma  (Red Beard) bound together. All this plus a curious nature and competitiveness. Mycroft is less curious, perhaps more intelligent and colder, while Sherlock is a bastard, and sometimes deliberately so, but also heroic in his sacrifices. His ability is not just to see what average people filter out, but to read people. Of course Sherlock can read his brother like he reads Watson, but he is also seeing himself in Mycroft. Mycroft is an alter of Sherlock, he can read the details, but feels no drive to.

Sherlock, may not feel (so he says) yet his psychological analysis of Watson is honest and devastating, and also sincere and to the point…that point being getting Watson through the pain of finding out about his wife and then to solve the dilemma. All this as even Sherlock is bleeding internally while using his knowledge of Watson to manipulate him.

As much as Watson is attracted to Sherlock and Mary types, Sherlock is aware of Watson’s utilitarian purpose as well as his other traits. This knowledge changes Sherlock. Sherlock, while remaining the kind of person who can kill without remorse, becomes more aware of his limitations and frailties and more able to be a friend and deliver a best man’s speech. On the other side of this friendship Watson gets the kind of adrenalin rush lifestyle he craves and a best friend and eventually a wife who is herself a mirror to Sherlock. So many mirrors.

Sherlock enjoying being a total and utter Sherlock. His idea of fun is torture. He ho. I did say he develops didn't I?

Sherlock enjoying being a total and utter Sherlock. His idea of fun is torture. Hey ho. I did say he develops didn’t I?

Something About Mary

We knew didn’t we, that something was up with Watson’s fiancée and knowing the types of things that happen to characters in this world, feared for her life? Yet we underestimated the writers. They created Mary to match Sherlock, and perhaps improve upon him. And improve him. And she does. She is pretty much action hero awesome, despicably deceptive and vulnerable all at the same time. As Sherlock points out, she is perfect for John because she like Sherlock, possesses the traits he prefers. And that is also the writers talking to the viewers. Mary Watson, if I may be so bold, is the female actiony-spy-doctor’s assistant/maternal figure we’ve been waiting for. Probably ever since The Long Kiss Goodnight. The point now is to make more use of her traits in the future…please let there be a future.

Rules of Foreshadowment

When filling a story with minor characters writers need to have a point, and make these characters have a point. Otherwise it’s Occam’s Razor for ‘em. Therefore the attentive viewer/reader needs to listen to what minor characters say. Mostly because those random insults and one liner quips usually become the truth. This is called foreshadowing. I submit to you this:

And wait until you realise what you are seeing in the last episode of series three!

And wait until you realise what you are seeing in the last episode of series three!

Anderson, Lestrade and Donovan are crucial as they can stand outside the central relationships and while being the observers (like an audience) but also heralds of the action. Yet they can also add depth, stir up conflict and make things happen. It is no accident that Anderson especially becomes like he does and it is no accident either that Sherlock explains to Anderson (rather than Watson) what happened to him. Anderson (and his new gang) are us. Fans devising explanations, fans imagining all sorts of crazy stuff while sitting around in Deer Stalker hats and speculating about the return, just like they did about 100 years ago:

Anderson and the  Sherlock fans work out how he did it. Or not.

Anderson and the Sherlock fans work out how he did it. Or not.

What else, these characters are also foils to demonstrate Sherlock’s cleverness, while his enemies and friend/s are there to show how wrong he can be. Moriarty and now Magnussen look like they beat Sherlock, until Sherlock wins, or almost wins (?). Yet the price for winning, for solving the crime puzzle, is high.

So there you go. There is a heap more to say and think about but this has suddenly become a long read. And I haven’t even mentioned the comedy! And his parents! Anyway thanks for reading and maybe rethinking Sherlock.

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